Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale, Season Two, Episode Twelve: Postpartum

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Postpartum marks the penultimate episode of season two.  When last we left June, she had just given birth alone after briefly reuniting with Hannah and watching Nick get dragged away by a pair of Guardians. Just as Serena promised, June has been seperated from her daughter and is once again in the Red Centre awaiting a new position. Any mom will tell you that labour and delivery is just the start of the journey and that the real work begins when you are handed this tiny human who wants attention all of the time. It's tiring, it's stressful but these moments are filled with the most selfless love. This is an experience June is being robbed of and instead, she's being treated like a dairy cow, forced to express milk for Holly every three hours. June's only reward is a bran muffin from eager couples looking to have her become their handmaid because she's delivered a healthy child.

In Gilead, parenthood, particularly motherhood, grants a certain kind of status. It's no surprise that once he had kidnapped June and Nick's child that Fred was promoted and moved into a bigger office. Fred being petty as fuck of course has to force Nick to hang a family portrait.  Even as he repeatedly tells Nick that he's going to go far, it's clear that it's Fred's objective to point out to Nick that though Nick is the biological father, Holly is his and will always be his. Even when Fred isn't being physically abusive, a strong streak of cruelty runs through him.  When Fred isn't busy pissing on a bush to mark his territory, he alternates between coming onto June, expecting to be rewarded for facilitating her brief reunion with Hannah, and dangling Holly in front of June to stimulate milk production. On every level that you can think of, Fred is a despicable human being. 

I know that there are those who have issues with the ways in which The Handmaid's Tale deals with motherhood, and I can imagine that this episode in particular would cause some consternation. The fact of the matter is that June didn't give up Holly for adoption, just as Janine didn't give up her daughter for adoption. These children have quite literally been kidnapped after being force breed. The idea that a baby needs its mother resonates strongly and I would argue rightfully so given the circumstances of the handmaids.  The wives who participate in child theft and raise them as their own are complicit in a horrible system, regardless of whether or not they love the child as in the case of Serena, or despise the child as in the case of Mrs. Putnam. It's torture to force rape and pregnancy on women and then deny them access to said child and even the title of mother. I think when examining the issue of motherhood re biological versus adoptive, it's important to remember the circumstances of reproduction in the Gilead. There are many aspects of The Handmaid's Tale which are analogous to the real world but not everything translates well. 

One of the most disturbing scenes in Postpartum is Serena's attempt to breast feed Holly. Breastfeeding is just such a deeply personal experience and it helps bond mother to child. No matter how much Serena may love Holly, she cannot give the baby what she needs and instead only ends up further frustrating the child to feed her own ego. That Serena withdraws and apologises to the baby shows that she understands that what she did was wrong.  It's absolutely abusive to breast feed another woman's baby without her explicit permission. It's easy to see this scene through the lens of biological mother vs adoptive mother because the emphasis is on the fact that of course Serena is not Holly's mother and this is when the system in which Holly's custody occurs is important to remember. Adoptive mothers can be just as loving as biological mothers which is why Serena loves Holly so much but in this case, Serena is also Holly's kidnapper. 

For quite some time now, Eden has been the looming threat in the Waterford household. Eden snooped through Nick's things and found the letters written by the handmaids. Eden also happened to witness the Handmaids in the store sharing their real names with each other. Eden was also suspicious of the feelings between Nick and June and even wondered if Nick was a gender traitor when he didn't rush to consummate their marriage. I knew that things would come to an end with Eden in a dramatic fashion however, I didn't expect her to run away with Issac after being told by June that she should hold onto love. Eden's death while unexpected was absolutely haunting. Eden was after all raised to be a good Gilead wife and wanted nothing more but to follow the rule of law because she deeply believed in God. If someone like Eden, who was so committed could not survive, what hope is there for any other woman?

What's particularly telling is that Eden wouldn't lie to save her own life because she believed that God knew what was in her heart. Nick begged her and Eden even refused to speak when her mother cried out just before she was drowned.  At the end of the day, I don't believe that Gilead wanted repentance and her suffering would have been immense had Eden denied her love for Issac. What Gilead wanted was another example to scare the population into compliance and judging from the various weights at the bottom of the pool, this is something which has happened time and time again. I think it's telling that Eden quoted 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. If anything, even though Eden is naive, she is, in my mind,  a better example of what Christianity is supposed to be then the evil old testament quoting leadership of the Gilead (note: I'm not calling the old testament in and of itself evil). The truth is that Gilead is Christian in name only and for all of their biblical quotation, it's worth noting that they seem to fixate on biblical passages that are all about pain, punishment and subjugation purposefully ignoring that the bible is a complex document. They never seem to quote anything to do with love or forgiveness or the responsibility people have to the communities they inhabit because these passages would be incongruent with their application of so-called biblical law. 

It's telling that it's Eden's death that finally brings Serena to the decision to allow June to hold and feed Holly.  I have no doubt that for all of her nasty ways that Serena truly loves Holly. The residents of the Waterford home may have found Eden at times annoying and most certainly naive, it was not lost on any them that she was a child - a female child. While the leadership of the Gilead meant for Eden to stand as a stark warning to the people regarding what is and isn't acceptable she also poses as a threat to baby Holly.  Holly was very much a wanted child and is loved at least by Serena and seen as a tool to power for Fred but Holly, despite the privilege that she was born into is very much under threat for the simple fact that she was born female in Gilead.  Holly is only useful to the degree that she will uphold the system, reproduce and stay silent. The future isn't female in the Gilead, the future is death, pain and oppression. Holly's innocence and youth will not protect her because even though Eden had all of those qualities, she was not protected. 

This episode we also got an introduction to Bradley Whitford, who plays Commander Joseph Lawrence.  Given Whitford's past roles, it's clear that he will probably play a significant character for some time. Emily is once again without a family to service because the last Commander that she was assigned to dropped dead of a heart attack shortly after the ceremony. Emily is informed by Aunt Lydia that she is very lucky to be given the opportunity to join the Lawrence household because Commander Lawrence is a very important man and that she is quickly running out of chances. Emily actively wonders why Commander Lawrence would want to take her in if he is so powerful and her history is so well known.

Right away, we are thrown for a loop. The Lawrence home does not look like any other home that we have seen in Gilead. It's filled with pilfered modern art and seems a bit like an overstuffed dark museum. We (read: the audience) are just as thrown by the change as Emily.  Even Lawrence's Martha seems unafraid to speak her mind.  Lawrence quickly shuffles Aunt Lydia out of the house before she can ask any questions and Emily is shown to her room.  Emily doesn't even have a few moments to adjust to the change in her circumstances before Mrs. Lawrence bursts into the room. It's quickly clear that Mrs. Lawrence is deeply troubled and she speaks to Emily about Lawrence's role in the creation of the colonies and how disturbed she is by it before quickly being shuffled out of the room by Joseph and locked in her bedroom.

That night, Emily who I suppose is not OfJoseph, sits down with the Commander in his office. The scene is absolutely Gothic and screams of Jane Eyre. It is quite the tonal shift for The Handmaid's Tale which has made its bones sticking strictly to dystopian horror. Joseph wants Emily to know that they value discretion in the Lawrence household and with eyes downcast, Emily spouts the familiar passive responses expected from handmaids.  It turns out that before inviting Emily into his home that Joseph has done his due diligence and he is very informed about exactly who Emily is - her past as a professor, the fact that she is gay, the removal of her clitoris and even her time in the colony. Joseph seems to be trying to establish a sort of trust between them, even as he reveals very little about himself. It's almost like he is courting her and nothing about this is calm or relaxing, given the fact that Gilead is such a dangerous place to be a woman.  Outside of the borders of Gilead, Fred is understood to be a war criminal but it would seem given the fact that Joseph is the father of the colonies, that he may very well be several degrees worse than Fred. Just wow. It's also worth noting that Fred also came across as not as dangerous as the other men of Gilead what with his scrabble playing and all and given Joseph's rather pointed statements and questions, it would seem that he is several degrees more dangerous.  There are already few consequences to harming women in Gilead and someone with Joseph's power more than likely would face even less consequences. Emily, while smart and still defiant in her lack of response might just be in a lot of trouble. I am fascinated to see where this pairing goes.